At this point, WWE is on “The Road To WrestleMania” which means that booking overall rises above it’s usual sea level (which at the moment is very, very low) and disinterested fans become reacquainted with a product that is none too familiar. And what, pre tell, does this do to a nostalgic wrestling fan boy? Frustrate the ever living hell (yeah) out of them (see Raw 25 for perfect evidence).
Even though I’m going to New Orleans this year for WrestleMania 34, I’m looking forward to everything surrounding the event rather than actually attending it. Sure, my attitude may soon change once I’m actually sitting in the Super Dome, but the prospect of sitting 7+ hours just to see Roman Reigns defeat Brock Lesnar in the main event isn’t none too appealing. It’s extremely difficult for me to shake all of it’s misused and sterilized characters, heavily-scripted dialogue and Orwellian buzzwords straight from the Vince McMahon dictionary (“WWE Universe” instead of fans, “sports entertainment” instead of wrestling – I could [and have] gone on to exhaustion). All of this is a constant Charlie Brown storm cloud that overhangs WWE’s current product.
Guess what didn’t have all that corporate mumbo-jumbo? Professional wrestling before the mid-2000s. That’s why returning nostalgia acts like the Rock, Chris Jericho, Bret Hart and Stone Cold Steve Austin garner interest again because their time period was when wrestling was at it’s hottest and the wrestlers ran the show. (Also why podcasts like “Something To Wrestle With” & “What Happened When” are such smash hits among wrestling fans) Who wants to cheer for “a brand”? Can a brand cut a one-of-a-kind promo? Can they literally beat the ever-living hell out out of a despicable villain? No, whether it’s WWE, NXT, ROH or NJPW they’re just three or four letters in caps. What matters are the performers and characters behind those letters.
So sue me if get pretty nostalgic around this time. Good or bad, accurate or off-base, it inspires me to do the following: rank the top 50 wrestlers from the 1990s. Like many, the 1990s were right in the thick of my wrestling fandom, and while all of the big promotions still had their own flaws WWF, WCW, and ECW unarguably had a wrestling show worth watching. You had outlaws, American Badasses, People’s Champions, Canadian patriots, degenerates, and Human Suplex Machines. Some very combustible elements brewing that yielded historic angles, match-ups and story lines (something that current WWE is so lackadaisical with).
So from now up until “The Grandest Stage of Them All” I will release my list of top wrestlers from that decade, factoring in their impact from the kid-friendly first half to the cuss-ridden, beer drinking second half to determine where which of our favorites fall in rank. So let’s get to the competitor who drew #50….
#50: Ken Shamrock
Hailing From: Macon, Ga.
Finisher: The Ankle Lock
Professional wrestler turned MMA fighter, turned back to professional wrestler, the introduction of Ken Shamrock into WWF in 1997 created a loose blueprint for today’s Brock Lesnar. With his shoot fighting background, Shamrock was slated to be a big star for the company, and while he had his share of memorable feuds and match-ups, “The World’s Most Dangerous Man” didn’t have as much as an impact as initially believed. He started off refereeing the WrestleMania 13 classic between Steve Austin & Bret Hart, but he and Vince couldn’t capitalize on Ken’s natural charisma, replacing his persona with a hot tempered man that flips his lid when pushed too hard. It’s a good idea for a basic foundation for a character, but a layer or two more could have done Ken wonders. However, personally speaking, Shamrock is in my top three of “Attitude Era” wrestlers and I wouldn’t have been as big of a WWF fan if it wasn’t for him.
#49: Dean Malenko
Hailing From: Irvington, N.J.
Finisher: The Texas Cloverleaf
Son of legendary wrestler, Boris Malenko, Dean Malenko went by not one, not two, but THREE notorious nickname: “The Shooter”, “The Iceman” and “The Man Of 1,000 Holds”. From luchadore to main eventer, Dean could square off against any competitor under any kind of circumstance. He didn’t make it to the WWF until after the 2000 Y2K meltdown, but what he added to both during his 90s tenures in ECW and WCW was extremely underrated. He was a big part of establishing ECW’s “credible technical wrestling” side and along with Chris Jericho & Rey Mysterio, he helped to put WCW’s Cruiserweight division on the map. In today’s world, Dean would have been at least a little higher up on the card, but in a land of characters, and wrestler-ran booking power, he got a touch lost in the shuffle sadly.
#48: Jeff Jarrett
Hailing From: Nashville, Tenn.
Finisher(s): The Figure Four Leg-Lock, The Stroke
Personally, I’m not the biggest fan of Jeff Jarrett, but he was a viable mid-card heel for both WWF & WCW during the 90s so I can’t not include him in the top 50. And don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with Jarrett as a mid-card heel, but that was his ceiling. Right at the tail end of 1999 though WCW brought him back as a main eventer, and I don’t care if he’s fake singing or hitting people with balsa wood guitars, Jeff Jarrett is not a main event talent, and him in that spot certainly didn’t help the sinking ship that became World Championship Wrestling.
#47: The Big Boss Man
Hailing From: Cobb County, Ga.
Finisher: The Boss Man Slam
Ray Traylor, aka: The Big Boss Man, was a corrections officer in his life before the squared circle, but life imitated art in the WWF. Boss Man was only a heel for the first two months of 1990, but turned babyface at the end of February to align with the likes of Hulk Hogan (who he feuded with in 1989) and Hacksaw Jim Duggan (“HOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!”), but what a difference a decade makes.
When Boss Man left the WWF in 1993 and eventually (due to stoopid legal shit) his prison guard gimmick stayed back too. He floated around WCW’s midcard for several years until he returned to the WWF as a security guard for Vince McMahon’s new stable of evil, The Corporation. A former legit prison guard once told me that the only difference between some guards and prisoners were the bars; Boss Man proved to be one of similar ilk. One of his story lines included “cooking and feeding Al Snow’s pet chihuahua” to him in a real knee slapper of a prank (don’t worry PETA, it’s in quotes if you couldn’t make sense that wrestling is scripted).
That wasn’t the end of Boss Man’s ill repute, though. No one was safe from his malice, not even The Big Show’s “dead father”, whom he callously interrupted the funeral of to chain the casket up to the back of his Crown Vic and drag it off Jake & Elwood style. He even got the Big Show’s own mother to admit that her son was illegitimate. That’s right, folks: he’s a bastard. The scales of justice wavered quite unsteady in Boss Man’s conscious courtroom, but despite such transgressions he ended the decade with a world title shot against the Big Show. Thankfully, justice did prevail as he lost to “Jon Snow” Show, capping off a significant 10 years of making many opponents walk the line.
#46: The Sandman
Hailing From: Philadelphia, Pa.
Finisher(s): DDT (On A Damn Chair), Russian Leg Sweep (With A Damn Kendo Stick)
Sandman was in ECW way back when ECW was Eastern Championship Wrestling, winning the promotion’s world title all the way back in 1992. Something special about The Sandman wasn’t his moveset (which absolutely isn’t the most versatile of movesets), but it the dude’s persona that made him stand out. He drank beer in the stands with south Philly fans, ripped cigs as often as Bret Hart would do a collar and elbow tie up and had his valet hit his opponents with kendo sticks.
Needless to say, he added to Extreme Championship Wrestling’s edginess. Some people credit Sandman for a loose framework of Steve Austin’s “blue-collar ass-kicker” persona and whether that’s true or not, Sandman helped define the wrestling era of the mid-to-late 90s. Also, there’s probably no professional wrestler in the history of time to benefit more from copyrighted music.
Until next week, gang.
Love or hate the list so far? Opine to me on Twitter @DominicDeAngelo
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